Monday, April 11, 2011

If This Is A Man - Primo Levi - Remember The Past

'If This Is A Man' is the account of Primo Levi, describing his 11 months imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Now, oppression of Jews was not specific to the Nazis, as is genocide of entire races throughout history. (genocide of native americans, aborigines in Australia and nearby Tamils in Sri Lanka). But what probably differentiates the Nazis from others is that, the Nazi ideology was probably the first and only time when evil came without any mask, showing its true face without hiding behind anything. Lots of genocides, oppressions are supported by some ideology which purport to a common good, due to which some people have to offer (Khamer rouge comes to mind, as well as Rajapakse's defending our own Tamils being put in camps). But Nazi ideology did not quite bother with these things, Jews were sub-human and hence had to be exterminated, period. This is not to compare the various oppressions, but just a thought. Along with Anne Franks diary, this work by Primo Levi is probably the most well known and most influential of the works detailing the holocaust. 
He was part of a group of Italians who were transported to Auschwitz and spent 11 months in the camp from Feb 1944 to Jan 1945. This book describes that period. Levi was around 24 at the period. As he enters the camp, the group notices the infamous motto of the camp 'work makes you free'. It could have been a cruel joke by the Nazis and an euphemism for 'work makes you dead'. The goal of the Nazis is not just to kill the Jews, but to break them first, both in body and spirit, extract the last bit of work from them and then end their misery. The living conditions are kept so horrible, but at the bare minimum level required to keep a human being alive, so that the person can contribute something still to the German cause. The degradation starts from the tattooing of the number assigned to each inmate to the herding of humans literally as animals in tiny bunks, to the meager rations provided to them. German music bands are played while the inmates march off to work and when they assemble for the roll calls. While music is supposed to be divine and soothing, the effect these (otherwise) normal march bands would have had on the inmates is something one can only imagine. As Levi himself states, even years after the experience the sound of that music still instills a sense of fear in him.
The remarkable feature of this book is the tone Levi takes. There is no anger, pity, extreme sorrow, or condemnation of the entire German race given out by the narrator. The tone here is matter of fact and one of almost resignation. These things happened and I am narrating it. It is not just true of the narrator of the book, but also of Levi as he was in the camp. (As levi states in his afterword, he would not accuse the entire German race, since it would mean that there would be no difference between him and the Nazis). Even in the camp, there is not much of anger or sorrow among the inmates. They understand that those emotions are not the ways to survive. As Levi says, the goal of the people is to survive with however much of human dignity as possible. That's why they wash themselves as much as possible, try to walk erect, clean their boots, not just because they are ordered too, but to convince themselves that they are still not destroyed and still retain a semblance of the human spirit. But it is a tough thing to do when you have a constant companion, your shadow almost, which is the ever persistent hunger that is always present with the inmates. You get somewhat free of the cold during the summer, but hunger never leaves you. The food is just enough to keep you alive and strong enough to work that's all. The cold, when it comes is  extremely horrible. So much so that what Levi describes at point almost gags you. The inmates are put in a bunk with a just a bucket to relive themselves. When the bucket is filled, the last person who urinated has to take it out and empty it. The bucket is full to the brim and some of the urine slips down to the feet. In spite of the repulsion it causes, some actually are okay with it because the warmth the urine provides when it falls on the leg. It may sound unbelievable to us, but that was the case in the camp. In fact some of the incidents levi describes could be thought of as a farce, a case of gallows humor even, if it were a account of fiction, but considering the actual facts it is even more terrible. Consider the checks done by the Nazis on inmates suffering from diarrhea. All the affected inmates have to stand in rows and each of them is given a minute to well, excrete into a bucket which is then checked by a guard who decides whether the inmate is cured or not. If persons at the back row, relive themselves before their turn comes, then it is their bad luck and they have to go back to work. It does not sound so much crazy or idiotic as it is indifferent. The Nazis just want some method or way to eliminating Jews, it is almost a matter of throwing a dice.
Indifference is the word one has to use while describing the Nazis. They also do not seem to harbor any rage against the inmates, it's more like they look at them as sub-humans, a species different from their own, which has to be crushed that's all. This does not apply to just the Nazis SS or the party workers, but also the doctors, and other professionals in the camp. Levi describes a meeting of his with a doctor while being interviewed (!) for chemist work in the camp. "It was as if it was happening through the walls of an aquarium, a meeting between 2 different species". One does not need to explain that the doctor obviously saw levi as a sub-human species, which is to be utilized as much as possible, but one which does not require any respect of any sorts. One can even try to comprehend the actions of the ideologues, but surely not all of Germany was part of the Nazi ideology. Lot of them got on the bandwagon once the Nazis got into power, many jumped into it once Germany started winning the wars. Probably the last group of people just enjoyed the power they could wield over another human being, the power to life and death and in some ways they are even more evil than the ideologues. So was the doctor one of them, who knows.
The inmates themselves try their best to survive and retain their dignity as much as possible. There are again some who condemn their own people to get some favors from the authorities. People do not think twice about stealing the others boots, his meager food. The normal rules of morality do not apply here and cannot be judged from the normal societal standards. Some resourceful inmates enter into some sort of dealing with the civilians in the barter of goods. In an ironic way, work is sometimes the only thing that keeps their sanity. They do not have time to think about anything else other than surviving that particular day. No time to think of the past, families lost. That's why when  people fall ill, though it gives some respite from the daily work, it is difficult to handle the idle period because your thinking starts again. A poignant moment is at the very end, just days before the liberation of the camp, when all the Germans have left the camp taking with them the prisoners who are healthy. (Levi was ill and so was not part of it). Levi and 11 others occupy a room. Levi and another person go outside and bring some food and ration it among everyone. Then a person decides that the remaining 9 would each give up a little portion of their food to Levi and the other person. Levi says that it was probably the first genuine human gesture he saw between inmates, in the one year he was there. The camp is finally liberated in Jan 1945 by the Russians. The travel undertook by Levi to return to Italy is recounted in 'The Truce'. Both the books are available as a single bound edition.

Yes, this is an important work and needs to be read by more. But it is also one of those works, which make you think, why was there a situation in the first place that led a book like this to be written. Why did Levi and millions others have to undergo such cruelty. The inadequacy of works to alleviate suffering again comes to the fore here. Primo Levi wrote his entire life about the holocaust, but he probably could never be reconciled with it and apparently depressed near the end of his life. Like wounds that may heal, but become scars which keep reminding the person of what happened, time did not diminish the pain he felt. To add to this was the revisionist theories that were/are being put forward which trivialized the entire thing. 

It becomes more depressing when one thinks that this is neither the first time nor the last time such a book could be written. This book in that sense does not just reflect the experience of the Jews and Levi. You could replace the Jews with other racial, ethnics groups and could get several other accounts which may differ in detail, but at the core are the same. Just think of the genocide in Bosina, Darfur and Sri Lanka, the conflict in Palestine (a cruel irony where the oppressor has become the oppressed).

One need not look for an Utopia where everyone is treated as brothers and sisters, which is practically impossible. Yes, most of us are also not in a position to formulate policies. But the least one could do is to remove all preconceived notions, the stereotypes we have in mind about an racial/ethnic/geographic group of people and be as open as possible so that one approaches a person as an individual irrespective of his race, country, sexual orientation and not as part or representative of a group. And to use one's own judgement instead of being a part of the herd and letting others judge for us. The distance from such stereotyping to racial bigotry or any bigotry in any form is very small and avoiding that, would be the least we can do for all victims of such bigotry. And let's not forget, one could as easily become a victim of such bigotry.  But considering the polarization that has been happening in the last decade and racial profiling that is gaining ground in most places, once is left with the feeling that we are condemned to repeat the mistakes that we keep making.

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